Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Combats can't hide codgerdom

Come the snowdrops, the lighter nights and the spring catalogues, my wife looks at me again and repeats: "I'd love you in a pair of combat trousers." The conditional - sad though it is - doesn't really upset me, for I understand that all that motivates her, in her desire to see me newly clad, is a gnawing fear that I am succumbing to old codgerdom.

For my part, I feel my habits are as they have always been: if I need a new pair of trousers or a shirt, I'll go and buy one or the other. I have never been a fashion hound; from the age of 16, I settled into anything blue or denim, although across the blue spectrum I can be quite adventurous. I have though, by chance, had a long and fairly interesting relationship with trousers.

Once at university, when I thought I was a hippy - "The only hippy to bank with the TSB" as a friend once cruelly remarked - I cannibalised two pairs of Levi's for a truly unique look. With Frankensteinian ingenuity, I excised the thighs from one pair, upended them and sewed them, seams to the front, to the knees of another pair that I had guillotined. No one else had a pair of flares quite like them. As if it were yesterday, I remember nodding my way into the student cafeteria - fringed buckskin jacket, assorted plumage and those fab one-off jeans - and, as I lowered my tray on to the table, my pendant of horseshoe nails and washers went splat into my tomato soup. Oh, man! Uncool.

The cover of Neil Young's far-out album After the Goldrush had encouraged us in our inventive sewing. Its back cover showed his bum embroidered with beautiful lapping scraps of Paisley pattern and forget-me-nots. Among the credits was "Patches - Susan Young". I preferred to do my own sewing - a sudden aficionado of Mum's sewing box and remnants at jumble sales. Though my girlfriend did not sew for me, I do remember the interesting and complex relationship I enjoyed with her trousers - a pair of hipsters that were always in the teasingly ambiguous condition of coming off or seeking purchase on her slim hips. In fact, hipsters were only one of a number of trouser styles that didn't seem to be designed for wearing at all.

In London, when the fashion was for wide trousers (I forget the name - flappers or something), I bought a pair and, considering they flattered me, decided to keep them on. On my way home on the Tube, the advantages of pre-washed denim became obvious, because when I crossed my legs, a stiff trouser leg billowed alarmingly up to chest height, and I spent the rest of the journey tucking flag-like extremities back into my own space.

But it was the tight years I hated most. Rose Street in Edinburgh in the seventies was dominated by Jean Saloons in which wraith-like slouchers served. In one, when I asked for a 32-inch waist - God, a 32! I should have been an unbearable peacock - the assistant seemed to sneer as he leafed down to where the trousers for the fat folk lay.

Trying them on in the tiniest of cubicles, terrified of falling bum first through the slatted swing doors, I - horror of horrors - caught my foreskin in the zip. Dear reader, reflect. My foreskin was stretching like an angry red gizzard, tears were running down my cheeks, but my greatest terror of all was the thought, if I couldn't amputate these trousers from my tenderest self, of calling Joe Cool across for advice. It must have been that thought alone that made me bear one final, terrible yank.

But that was a long time ago and, now that I need freshening up, I admit I'm a tad lost. Perhaps I need a fashion buddy to help me, such as Simon, our theatre designer friend, who always manages to look the right side of rumpled, naturally trendy. Perhaps we could go shopping together.

Still, I did manage to buy the combats on my own - brown ones at that - and found myself one day with our friends John and Gail as a helpless mannequin. "See," Gail pointed, "Tom's got combat trousers!" I think there may have been a silent Even at the start of that John's excuse that, as a PE teacher, he lives in a tracksuit 70 per cent of the time cut no ice.

It seems that nothing can save us when we need freshening up. Ah, the things we must do to make you love us. I have the combat trousers now, but I know that they only paper over the cracks. I am an old codger still - but, Baby, my heart's on fire!

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul